Lankford dishes on the future of the federal workforce

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Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) at a June 2017 Appropriations hearing. (Photo credit:Mark Reinstein/

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs' Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management, was recently tapped to chair the Appropriations Financial Services and General Government subcommittee, positioning him in key roles to carry out workforce priorities. On June 27, he spoke with FCW's Chase Gunter about some of those priorities, as well as the White House's reorganization plan.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

FCW: With your recent appropriations chairmanship, what are your top legislative priorities or things you want to change most on that subcommittee?

LANKFORD: On the General Government side, obviously trying to work through how do we support the federal worker. One of them is, cost of living increase that we've already pushed through the committee process, the 1.9 percent increase, equal to what we did last year. That was important to be able to get in.

A key aspect to us is to let the federal workforce know we're supportive and appreciative of the service they're doing around the country, but that they also have the tools that they need. Because what I find often with the federal workforce is they're frustrated  because they're not necessarily lacking the financial resources, but they're lacking the support or the direction or the team members around them to be able to get it done.

So we've got to work on hiring issues, we've got to work on how we deal with basic oversight in the workplace. I don't want to have a really high achiever sitting right next to someone who is not achieving very well because that's just incredibly frustrating for them.

FCW: You mentioned the hiring issues. What do you see as the biggest challenge to getting talented folks into government and keeping them?

LANKFORD: The hiring process is horrible. It takes forever. This is a partnership not only with [the appropriations subcommittee], but with [the HSGAC subcommittee]. That is the No. 1 issue that comes up again is hiring good folks, and how long it takes through the hiring process.

FCW: When it comes to civil service reform, if you could wave a magic wand and change one thing, what would it be?

LANKFORD: I wouldn't even be able to begin to guess on that. The problem is deciding… just one thing to be able to change. There's a whole host of those issues. I already brought up the hiring process. Most everyone would tell you in the business world, you solve most of the problems in the workforce by hiring the right people at the beginning. You hire the wrong people at the beginning, then you're going to have problems forever. But if you can hire the right people, then that makes a big difference. But that means you've got to be able to have a good selection process, you've got to be able to do it in a timely manner, you can't have someone wait for months to be able to hear back and to be able to know if they've been hired or not because they've already moved on to another job.

You've got to be able to transition interns that are really high-quality interns in the workplace, because they've already been seen to be successful. Your probationary period has to line up well. If your probationary period is too short or too long, then that doesn't work for managers or employees. You've got to have managers that are well-trained that actually know how to manage…

So I wish there was only one thing that we had to be able to work through, but we've got an ocean of them.

FCW: On the reorganization, what of that plan would you most like to see implemented, and what's something you either don't like or see as a challenge in getting enacted?

LANKFORD: I would say, when I look at the big proposal of restructuring, the No. 1 thing that I thought on it is I'm very grateful someone's throwing out big ideas. Each administration has done something like this. Obviously Bill Clinton had the whole reinventing government years ago, and there's been lots of those through paperwork reduction or how we're trying to operate. So every single administration has tried to do some sort of major restructure, so that doesn't offend me; I'm grateful to be able to see it. It's some big ideas that are out there that I look at, I was grateful to be able to have it.

So when they say, "Okay, so let's look at what Education and Labor both do. They're both trying to be able to prepare people for the workforce and protect the workers." Okay, well that's an interesting idea to be able to combine the two and be able to make sure we're streamlined and focused on preparing people for future vocations rather than siloing people, saying, "You're moving from this one to this one." There's a general, "Look, I think that's a fascinating idea to be able to look long-term on how would that work."

I look at the workforce issues and start to ask questions about the Office of Personnel Management that are raised. My first question is, why does it work better for someone else to do that same thing rather than just reform OPM? So I'm trying to ask that exact question: "Okay, so you want to be able to move this area out of OPM to the General Services Adminstration. Why?"

It can't be that GSA is more efficient now than OPM is now. There has to be a structural thing that long-term you wouldn't say with better leadership, this couldn't also function with OPM. So is that a leadership problem, or is that a real structural issue? And I'm going to try to keep pushing back to be able to ask some of those questions and be able to figure it out.

But I'm grateful for the debate and the conversation, and as much as we can have the louder debate about all the different issues, the better we'll be because all these things will take multiple years to do and a vote.

FCW: What would you say to feds who are worried about being fired or having their programs merged or whatever their uncertainty is?

LANKFORD: What was interesting was, when I sat down with the Office of Management and Budget originally, they led off with "this is not about laying workers off. This is not about reducing size of government. This is about efficiency."

Now, the challenge with that is some people are still going to say, "Well, that's easy to say, but if you combine these two HR departments … and I'm in HR in one of them, what does that mean? Am I going to be in, or am I going to be out?"

Most of these issues, obviously, are going to take years to be able to socialize, and then they would take years to actually implement. None of these things are something that you could turn around and do tomorrow. This is something that will take a very long time, and should get plenty of lead-up for individuals through the process of whatever transition may or may not be needed.

FCW: And the bill that you introduced along with Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Ohio) that would expand the authorities of the executive branch to carry these out. Do you have any concerns about expanding that authority, or what was the thinking there?

LANKFORD: I don't. What's interesting is a bill just like this has been done in the past with other administrations to say, "We need to give some authority and give some leeway for them to be able to brainstorm, think, start to be able to put it together." It's all going to be able to have to come to Congress to be able to have a vote at the end of it.

So this is not giving them blank authority to do whatever they want. It's beginning the process of saying, "If we're going to do restructuring, you've got to be able to have a little bit of wiggle room to be able to talk about it, look at it and figure out how this is going to work" and then bring the final proposal in.


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